Alzheimer's experts clarify the role of new biomarker tech

New diagnostic tests are rolling out that can identify key biomarkers for Alzheimer's at a very early stage of disease development. But the new technology has been met with a jolt of controversy that's rarely seen in the field of diagnosis and drug development.

Armed with new tests, experts at the Alzheimer's Association and the National Institute on Aging excitedly proposed new diagnostic standards for the memory-wasting disease in July. But critics swiftly hit back, asking why early-stage patients would benefit from learning that they're afflicted with an ailment for which there is no known cure. After all, they reasoned, wouldn't greedy drug developers be the only beneficiaries, with a new marketing tool to encourage the sale of inadequate therapies to frightened patients?

So the experts decided to backtrack a little in early August, clarifying that the new diagnostics approach would be suggested only for research purposes for now, so that developers would be able to start finding out how they could slow or even prevent the disease from robbing the elderly of their memories.

While Alzheimer's is increasingly common, it's been impossible to determine whether a patient is actually suffering from the disease until an autopsy is performed. Now, though, new technology can flag the beta amyloid and tau that are commonly seen in the disease. The trouble is that researchers are still trying to determine how these biomarkers fluctuate over the course of the disease. Putting a spotlight on these biomarkers should help developers measure success in ways that would have been unimaginable until recently.

"We are trying these drugs way too late," Dr. Reisa Sperling, of Brigham and Women's Hospital, tells the New York Times. And there are some very earnest drug developers who would like to gain some quick insights into the effect their drugs could have when it would matter the most to patients.

- see the article from the New York Times
- read Nature's story on the new technology